Tuesday, July 22

Letter to an Unknown Soldier- Bury's Workshops

Most writers of historical fiction become very attached to their time periods. For me, that would be medieval. But the exploration of any time period is fascinating.

So when I was approached by  Bury Libraries to run workshops as part of the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, I felt very privileged. The LTAUS project is part of 1914-18 NOW. 1914-18 NOW is a major cultural programme taking place across the United Kingdom to mark the centenary of the First World War. (For more details, please click here). The LTAUS is a new kind of war memorial, a memorial made only of words from thousands of people. (Details can be found here).

The statue of the Unknown Soldier on the platform at Paddington Station in London, reading a letter, provided the inspiration. Any individual could write letters. But Bury Libraries took the approach of offering workshops in collaboration with the Council's Archives Service to provide people with a sense of their local history and to make it even more meaningful to them. And here is what we did.

The Call to Fight
© 2014 EM Powell /Bury Archives
Archivists specialise in rabbit-out-of the-hat moments, except they do them with no drum rolls or spangled suits. But when they showed us these original recruitment posters that were used in Bury, it was a proper hairs on the back of the neck moment.

These were enlistment posters issued on behalf of Lord Derby: the very posters that were part the unthinkable tragedy that was the Pals Battalions. Pals Battalions were made up of men from one small area, so relatives and friends would sign up and fight together- just as they would die together. In another part of Lancashire, the Accrington Pals saw 720 men fight. 584 of them died, were injured or were reported missing.

And here were the very posters before which people stood on the streets of Bury and surrounding towns in Lancashire. Stood and were tempted with the promise of  uniforms, money, training at the upmarket seaside at Lytham and St. Annes. There is even the appeal to men who are 'fond of Horses.'

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

The posters are huge, approximately two thirds the height of an average domestic door and about as wide. They shout out the opportunity that was in reality, for many men, a call to death. Our soldier may have stood on the streets of Bury, a young man reading that call before hurrying off to enlist. And once enlisted, his only contact with home would be through his letters.

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

Life in Bury

What of those left behind? Left waiting every day for a letter that told them their loved one was safe and well, or the dreaded message that they were killed or missing?

Again the Archives provided us with a fascinating insight with the newspapers of the time. We have an account of replica trenches in Heaton Park, Manchester's biggest park that is still thronged today when the sun shines. People in 1916 could pay to go and have a look at the replicas, with donations going to the fund for blinded soldiers and sailors. We doubted that the replicas would have shown the true nature of what the trenches were like.
© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

We saw the disapproval of society for a discharged soldier who was drunk on a tram, a finger-wagging article about the wives of soldiers who were spending their government allowance on drink.

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

We found a letter in a newspaper from a teacher, Mr. Frank Morris. One of his pupils, Corporal Hutchinson, was awarded the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery. In the letters we saw he has been badly wounded. 

Corporal Hutchinson mentions all the letters and telegrams he has received: 'Well, I could do with a typewriter to answer them all'. And he talks of home: 'I am awfully proud of myself for having won so great an honour for the town of Radcliffe.' Corporal Hutchinson touchingly signs his letter: 'So here's hoping you are in the best of health, from one of your Sunday school scholars.' 

So We Wrote...

We found so many other glimpses of life in Bury during the First World War. We began to know our soldier, know his world.

One participant at the workshops had had a great-uncle who fought. Her great-uncle died, unmarried, a couple of decades later, having checked himself into a sanatorium, still carrying the deep scars of what people knew as shell shock. She wrote to him, with the love, care and grief of someone who really knew him.

A young woman wrote to the drunk discharged soldier on the tram, outraged at his treatment by the society for which he had gone to fight.

A man wrote to his Irish relative who had left the soft, green fields of County Clare, only to die in the heat and dust of Gallipoli.

...and a Soldier Wrote Back.

We finished our workshops with a letter that had been sent by a Lance-Corporal J.W. Gilbert, from Tottington. He sent his mother the following poem:, called "TO MY DEAR MOTHER" 

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

Lance-Corporal Gilbert was a cricket-playing mill worker before he enlisted. He never did come home to his cosy feather bed or his fireside at Market Street. He never did come home to his mother. On June 16, 1917, Mrs. Gilbert received 'official information of his death.' She received this almost a year after being informed he was 'missing.' He was twenty-two years old.

The Importance of Letters

The letters we wrote will never bring Lance-Corporal Gilbert home to Tottington. But we think Mrs. Gilbert would have liked that we spoke of her son and her heart-breaking loss, all these years later. Our letters will be there to remember him and honour all the others who have been forgotten.

The Letter to an Unknown Soldier project was commissioned by 14-18 NOW who supported the Bury project. A book of some of the letters has been published. You can find more details here. Alison Bond, Nichola Walshaw and Adam Carter from Bury Libraries and Archives brought the soldier home to Bury with their wonderful resources. Contact details for their service can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-twitter-cards-blogger-blogspot.html/#sthash.Xcm5fXCr.dpuf